On a recent Saturday night, I invited a couple of friends out for dinner and drinks. We got in a car in Los Angeles, where we all live, and drove 40 miles south to Newport Beach, a pricey oceanfront Orange County city known for its nightlife. We had journeyed this obscene distance across multiple Southern California freeways to try a new restaurant. Its name is Taco Bell Cantina.
Yes, the restaurant is a part of the Taco Bell fast-food chain, which has more than 6,000 outposts in the U.S. serving a variety of Mexican and Mexican-ish foods. Taco Bell Cantina, unlike most of those 6,000, is a “concept” restaurant, one of about a dozen being rolled out across the country to test out a new permutation of the Taco Bell format. Taco Bell Cantina’s main distinguishing feature? It serves beer.
The restaurant is located on a tight footprint on a corner about a block from the beach. There’s no drive-thru or parking lot, and on the Saturday night of my recent visit, the dining area was nearly full with mostly teenagers and 20-somethings. There was a line for the bathroom.
My friends and I ordered several thousand calories worth of the usual Taco Bell food: chalupas, cheesy gorditas, nachos, a quesadilla wrapped around a burrito. On draft, the restaurant had an amber lager from a local brewery rebranded as “Beach Bell.” It was a novelty on top of the novelty.
Taco Bell Cantina verges on the sleek, with dark wood-topped tables and black metal chairs, tall stools along a central dining bar, and hanging Edison bulbs. Murals by a local artist adorn the walls, and giant folding windows open up its edges to the outside. Next to the counter, a wall of glass separates and frames the food prep area like some cutting-edge test kitchen.
The beer, it turns out, is only part of what Taco Bell Cantina is experimenting with. The new concept is also testing the theory that what the restaurant looks like is as important as what food and drinks it serves.
“What is different now from what we used to do is we are breaking away from a one-size-fits-all model and going to more flexibility, more variations, to end up with a more curated approach,” says Deborah Brand, Taco Bell’s vice president of development and design. Taco Bell has spent the past two years rethinking its restaurant design, and Taco Bell Cantina is just one result. “I think it’s a different approach to value,” Brand says. “We’ve always known that we have inexpensive food that is craveable, but we also look at value as serving the same food at the same price point in a potentially much more elevated dining environment.”
Many other fast-food chains—“quick-service restaurants,” or QSR, in industry parlance—are doing the same. Restaurants from McDonald’s to KFC to Starbucks are rethinking their spaces inside and out, in a wave of design interventions that, given the sheer number of these restaurants, will spread throughout the U.S. These designs are setting a new standard for the commercial landscape, guiding the look and feel of the stores and restaurants on our streets and in our daily routines.
These redesigns are a product of the times. Fast-food brands are reacting to changing demographics, but they’re also trying to stay competitive with the growing numbers of “fast-casual” restaurants, like Panera Bread and Chipotle, that are luring customers away from deep fryers and greasy burgers with healthier dining options. They’re also trying to make the argument that going out for dinner and drinks with friends can happen at a Taco Bell.
It’s become an industry standard to regularly rethink the branding and design of fast-food restaurants. Consultants suggest that stores undergo a refresh every three to five years—new paint, light fixtures, menu boards, floor treatments, and so on. Every 10 years, they recommend a full-on redesign: tearing out seats, updating exterior architectural elements, maybe even scrapping the whole structure and building up from the foundation.
“If things stick around too long, it becomes wallpaper,” says Mark Moeller, of the restaurant development consultancy the Recipe of Success. “We all get bored with wallpaper after a while.”
Sometimes the update is specific to the location and business trends of a particular restaurant. Other times it’s a set of new design standards dictated from the corporate level to the franchisees who actually own and operate—and pay most or all of the cost to decorate—many fast-food restaurants. Regardless, the goal of these refreshes and redesigns is what’s known in the industry as a sales lift—a temporary but quantifiable increase in business. According to restaurant advisor John A. Gordon of the Pacific Management Consulting Group, a modest refresh might bring about a 2 to 5 percent sales lift. A full redesign could yield a 10 to 15 percent lift.
Gordon says these relatively common business practices are starting to morph from an instinct to freshen up a place’s appearance into a more wholesale reaction to design and demographic trends. That can mean a total reimagining of what the dining experience should be.
“It is not that there isn’t a common look and feel to a chain restaurant. There is. But the desire is to get more locally orientated, more local, whatever local means,” Gordon says, be it location-specific decor or colors that reflect the regional aesthetic. “That means something to consumers now.”
Other new elements include places where people can plug in and charge their phones and access free Wi-Fi, according to Howland Blackiston, principal at King-Casey, a restaurant branding and design firm that’s worked with more than 100 quick-service and fast-casual restaurants around the world. His firm is increasingly being called on to design interiors of restaurants with spaces specifically intended to be used as backdrops for selfies. “Some of it seems routine, but it wasn’t routine five years ago,” he says.
“The role of the designer becomes much more than decor and colors and materials,” Blackiston says. “It now involves thinking in a very creative way [about] what are innovations that we can come up with that maybe don’t exist yet, or certainly that haven’t been applied yet, that not only meet the needs of our customer base, but also differentiate our brand from the one down the street.”
Creating that sense of difference can be challenging, especially when certain design tropes become common. “Some of those brands run the risk of looking a lot alike. And this is more fashion than branding, in that it seems fashionable now to have buildings with a lot of recycled wood on the exterior,” he says. “I certainly love the way it looks, but you kind of do run the risk, if everybody does that, you’ve lost the differentiation.”
Fast-food restaurants have long fought to stand out from each other, but they’re also now battling relatively new competitors known as fast-casual restaurants. These slower-than-fast-food dining establishments, such as Chipotle and Panera Bread, have steadily moved in on fast food’s market by positioning themselves as healthier, slightly more “authentic” alternatives to the ubiquitous fast-food chains.
“Fast casual has come in as a new category and really kind of evolved with the market and consumers’ expectations, and a lot of the [quick-service restaurant] brands are feeling the pinch of the challenge of needing to catch up,” says Marty McCauley, design director at FRCH Design Worldwide, one of the biggest restaurant and retail design firms, which is based in Cincinnati. He says fast-casual restaurants are making an impact not just with their menus, but with the way their restaurants are designed and operated. They’re often “food-forward,” making a show of how meals are prepared as a way of highlighting their ingredients, and using interior-design materials that create what McCauley calls a defined sense of place. “Those types of ideas have definitely made their way into the QSR realm,” he says.
McCauley has been applying these principles in the design guidelines he creates for fast-food restaurant chains like Subway and KFC, outlining a spectrum of design interventions that locations can make to feel more local, more welcoming, more food-focused—everything from highlighting the sandwich rolls baking at Subway restaurants to creating a “breading window” in a KFC where customers can watch their chicken pieces being prepared for the fryer.
A quirk of designing for chains with thousands of restaurants and global marketing campaigns means that the design of the physical spaces often has to align with the image of the restaurant being portrayed in advertisements. In recent years, the KFC brand has built its advertising campaigns around an updated interpretation of the chain’s white-haired founder and human mascot, the long-deceased Colonel Harland Sanders, playing on his Southern gentleman character, while also making him, and the restaurant he represents, a little feisty. McCauley and FRCH were tasked with redesigning the restaurants to reflect this new attitude.
“I think what happened is there was a little bit of a disconnect between the experience inside the store and what consumers were seeing on TV and in the ads, and so this whole refresh approach was about how can we be a little bit bolder, a bit more expressive with the built environment,” McCauley says. “Some of those solutions involve embracing this kind of mantra of “What would the Colonel do with a bucket of paint?’”
The resulting design guidelines call for a range of possible changes. Full-scale redesigns include chicken-bucket-shaped light fixtures, barn-red furnishings, and photo-ready statues of the Colonel, which the corporation makes available to franchisees. Smaller-scale interventions are literally that bucket of paint, a red-and-white striped color job that franchisees can do on the cheap to stay up to date with the brand. “There is this really fine line that we have to toe, where we want to create big change, we want the consumer to be aware of the change and kind of see the brand’s transformation in the market,” says McCauley. “But at the same time, it’s got to be something that the franchisee is willing to invest in and that doesn’t break the bank from that perspective.”
This lighter touch can be seen at a KFC restaurant in the Lincoln Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles, northeast of Downtown. A framed photo of Colonel Sanders hangs near the cash register, next to a sign in the workspace calling on employees to “Treat every guest like a friend in your home.” Above the counter, another sign facing the dining area urges visitors, ambiguously, to “Make the Colonel proud.” The walls are bright red, and the paint job extends around the entire exterior of the boxy, stucco-walled building. White trim hangs above the entrance and two framed images of the Colonel sit side by side on the front facade. Not long ago, only half the building had the red-and-white treatment, while the other was a geometric mix of orange and brown, topped with a slight curve reminiscent of a bell shape. This design flourish was no coincidence; the restaurant, until around 2014, was a combination KFC-Taco Bell.
In 1962, long before the advent of the combination KFC-Taco Bell (or its counterpart, the combination Pizza Hut-Taco Bell), Taco Bell stood on its own. Its first location was in the LA suburb of Downey, and the restaurant was designed to make an impact. With a Spanish tiled roof, arched veranda, and faux adobe walls, the Taco Bell of yesteryear had a distinct architecture, and this look became the model for the chain’s restaurants as it grew and spread. The theatrical Mexican theme of this building type also served to mark Taco Bell’s place on the urban and suburban landscape.
One night in November 2015, the original Taco Bell restaurant was plucked from the foundation where it had stood for the previous 53 years and loaded onto the back of a flatbed truck. Video footage from that night shows the restaurant, not much bigger than a two-car garage, perched doublewide on the back of the truck, a specimen of a building that could, at one time, be seen in hundreds, if not thousands, of towns across the country. After being strapped in place, the building was driven 45 miles to Taco Bell’s corporate headquarters in Irvine, where it remains today, a relic of a time when the building was the brand.
Today, in the era of the Taco Bell Cantina, the chain has diversified its approach to design, shifting far away from this signature building style. But branding through architecture is still a strategy used by some fast-food chains. Take the white castle-shaped buildings of the White Castle brand, for instance, or the sloping, hat-shaped red roof of the Pizza Hut chain. In its early years, McDonald’s required that its franchised restaurants use the famed “golden arches,” two parabola-shaped yellow bands on each end of the building that became a form of physical advertising. Now, for reasons such as cost and flexibility, brands are putting less emphasis on highly defined ornamental architecture and paying more attention to the experience of the customer, both in the drive-thru and inside the building.
On a commercial corner in Los Angeles, tucked between a gas station and a thrift store parking lot, sits an example of the modern McDonald’s. Apart from the iconic signage, the golden arches are gone. The restaurant is a long, rectangular stucco building, tan all over except for a few white protrusions. A few bands of yellow overhang the pedestrian walkways, and a metal panel wraps around the top of the double-height windows that enclose the indoor play structure. On its long side, a driveway leads to two separate lanes where drivers place their orders. The double drive-thru, a relatively new concept being deployed at busier locations in the quick-service industry, is an attempt to make fast food even faster.
Inside, the restaurant is all browns, tans, grays, and off-whites—hardly the clown colors one might expect in the house of Ronald McDonald. The interior space is varied, with multiple seating options, including booths, moveable wood-backed chairs, and half-moon-shaped tables with curving benches and squat padded ottomans. There are about 30 people inside on a recent Friday morning. An older man sits on one of the moon benches, reading a paper. A mother pushes a stroller with a toddler holding the screen of a phone not six inches from his face. A woman sits alone at a booth, knitting.
The most immediately unusual thing about the dining area is the set of three tall double-sided video kiosks near the counter holding touch-screen displays where people can order and pay for their meals. Common in Europe, they’ve only been in use at McDonald’s restaurants for about a year and a half. An employee is standing nearby to help people through the process, and is called upon often over the course of a half hour to assist confused customers. She taps the screen for a man, only for the machine to malfunction just before he can pull out his credit card. They move to another screen, hit another glitch, and eventually give up. The woman walks behind the counter and takes his order the old-fashioned way, in a fraction of the time.
This technology may be stumbling in its early days, but it’s becoming a feature of the design of fast-food restaurants. In the past, designers would try to optimize the restaurant’s operations by reconfiguring the kitchen and the counter. Now, they’re working the floor, creating spaces for people to do their own ordering, adding pick-up areas for on-demand food delivery apps, facilitating table service and the ability to deliver preordered food to customers waiting in the parking lot.
These are becoming part of the standard set of design elements being rolled out across McDonald’s roughly 37,000 restaurants around the world. In the past, each region had its own design group, but over the past year this work has been unified. “At any point in time we’ll have eight to 10 designs in our portfolio, and how they’re applied to different building types, they end up manifesting themselves a little bit differently based on size and restaurant configuration,” says Max Carmona, senior director of global development. “It would be rare that they all look exactly the same. And that’s certainly not what we’re after. What we are after is definitely some more brand consistency.”
This is also related to the company’s effort to reduce the environmental impact of its restaurants. It recently announced a goal of cutting the greenhouse gas emissions from its restaurants 36 percent by 2030.
At the extreme end of this campaign is the design for the flagship McDonald’s in Chicago that aims to achieve LEED Platinum, the green building certification system’s highest level. It’s also a particularly impressive piece of modern architecture. Designed by Chicago-based Ross Barney Architects, it’s a 19,000-square-foot jewel box of glass, steel, and cross-laminated timber, covered by a white pergola that stretches over nearly the entire block and a park-like outdoor dining area. This restaurant will be a replacement for the so-called Rock ’n’ Roll McDonald’s, a two-story building constructed in 2005 that was a brightly exaggerated version of the golden arches archetype, decorated with music memorabilia.
“It’s very different. It’s not the carnival-y Ronald McDonald,” architect Carol Ross Barney says. “The colors are more subdued; the materials are more natural.” Surrounded by glass, the new design pulls in natural light, and its artificial lighting is intended to be less oppressive than the past. “You always felt like you were in an operating room eating in a fast-food restaurant,” she says. “That might make [customers] eat their food fast, but it wasn’t what necessarily made them comfortable.”
In addition to designing for a better dining experience, Barney’s team of designers put significant effort into ensuring a better experience getting into and out of the restaurant, which is heavily frequented by tourists—and in a neighborhood full of bars. “When we were doing research, a few of my guys went out there at 2 a.m. and the place was packed,” Barney says, which helped prove that access for pedestrians should be prioritized. “I think if you looked at it 15 years ago, the drive-thru was the most important thing. You had to take care of the drive-thru customers. Now [pedestrians] may be not the most important thing, but they’re a close second,” Barney says. “What they asked us to do was to change the nature of the restaurant so it made all those people satisfied.”
Unlike some designers who focus specifically on fast-food restaurants, this is the first foray for Barney’s firm. And while designing for a flagship store is different than creating a reusable design standard for thousands of locations nationwide, the fact that each location is basically doing the same thing—serving the same type of food to customers who’ve come to expect consistency—means the best design ideas may eventually trickle down.
The redesign of fast-food restaurants is an ongoing process: trying things out, testing them, surveying customers, tweaking and redesigning again. It’s both high and low stakes—high for the massive scale of these businesses, but low because, in the end, it’s a burger and fries. Or a chalupa.
The fast-food restaurants of the near future will probably look much more like the Taco Bell Cantina than that first Taco Bell. Demographic and technological trends will continue to guide the way these spaces are designed and redesigned. The resulting form may be new, but the underlying process has been happening before our eyes for decades. The original Taco Bell building opened in 1962 and operated for many years before it was deemed outdated. Citing the “popularity of larger restaurants with indoor seating and drive-thrus,” the company moved out to different spaces. That was 1986.
Nate Berg is a freelance journalist writing primarily about cities, design, and technology. He lives in Los Angeles.
Editor: Sara Polsky